Stanford Law School Students Present Key Research Findings on Realignment and on Lifer Parole to California Governor Jerry Brown

Criminal justice students outline the implementation and impact of moving the state’s offenders from state prisons to county jails and also report on two empirical studies of the parole process for life prisoners

Stanford Law School Students Present Key Research Findings on Realignment and on Lifer Parole to California Governor Jerry Brown 2
Stanford Law School Students Present Findings to California Governor Jerry Brown and Special Counsel to the Governor Anne Gust Brown

A group of Stanford Law School students recently presented their research findings to California Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. on the implementation and impact of California’s Public Safety Realignment legislation and on key aspects of the parole process for California “lifer” inmates.

The students conducted the research as part of a course, Advanced Seminar on Criminal Law and Public Policy: A Research Practicum. The course was created by Joan Petersilia, the Adelbert H. Sweet Professor of Law, and the research was supervised under the auspices of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center (SCJC), which Petersilia co-directs along with Robert Weisberg, the Edwin E. Huddleson, Jr. Professor of Law. The research produced by the class is intended to contribute to the State’s and counties’ understanding of the impacts of Realignment in real-time.

According to Petersilia, “California’s Realignment is the biggest penal experiment in modern history, but little has been done to consider Realignment’s impact broadly, or to evaluate its statewide impact on crime, incarceration, justice agencies, or offender recidivism.”

Petersilia told students to envision the class as if it were a “makeshift policy institute” and to treat the Governor as a client.

The student researchers worked closely with the Governor’s top agencies, asking them to pose their most pressing questions. Their research methodology included conducting 90 interviews across 12 counties, speaking with practitioners on the ground about how AB 109 has impacted their daily work. They interviewed staff in the offices of the district attorney, public defender, probation chief, judiciary, sheriff, parole, and victim-witness services. They surveyed the following counties: Alameda, Fresno, Kern, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, Sacramento, San Francisco, San Joaquin, Santa Barbara, Santa Clara, and Solano. In addition, they collected detailed data on each of California’s 58 counties, pre- and post-realignment.

Five students delivered summarized reports, and in all, seventeen students were on hand to answer tough, detailed questions from the Governor and his accompanying staff, Gabriel Sanchez, Deputy Legal Affairs Secretary, and Anne Gust Brown, Special Counsel to the Governor and California’s First Lady.

Stanford second-year students Mariam Hinds and Matthew Owens, and third-year Jessica Spencer presented, “Voices from the Field: Emerging Trends in Realignment.” Jackie Robinson and David Friedman presented, “Marsy’s Law and Lifer Parole Denial Periods.” Second-year law student Michael Ruiz, whose study was done with Stanford undergraduate Eric Dunn, presented “Base Term Enhancements for Lifers Found Suitable for Parole.” The other students who were on hand to field questions from Governor Brown were John Butler, Eric Dunn, Mark Feldman, David Friedman, Kevin Jason, Corrine Keel, Marissa Landin, Rachel McDaniel, Camden Vilkin, Alyssa Weis, Jenny Williams, and Jordan Wappler.

At the conclusion of the presentation, Petersilia said, “Governor, these students are among the state’s experts on the implementation of Realignment and on the parole of California’s “lifer’ population—and all at no cost to the taxpayer!”

“This class has provided me and my classmates a unique educational opportunity to see how a major piece of criminal legislation plays out on the ground,” said student researcher Mark Feldman. “It is not often that, as a law student, one gets to feel like your research is serving a public interest need or that it will be read and considered by policymakers and practitioners around the state.”

On behalf of the Governor, Steve Acquisto, Chief Deputy Legal Affairs Secretary, praised the research, saying, “These areas often don’t get the attention or analysis they deserve, which makes the research your students have performed especially valuable.”

In an earlier pilot of this course, Petersilia and her students worked with California State Attorney General Kamala Harris and the Santa Clara County’s Community Corrections Partnership (CCP).

“This practicum is a perfect example of the extraordinary research opportunities available to Stanford Law School students,” said Stanford Law School Dean Elizabeth Magill. “What’s quite exceptional is that our students are able to have a real impact on public policy while they are still in school.”

Headed by faculty co-directors Robert Weisberg and Joan Petersilia, and executive director Debbie Mukamal, the Criminal Justice Center operates as a public service consultant to public officials at all levels of government and encourages collaborative criminal justice policy by forging partnerships with government entities in the criminal justice arena that can benefit from social science research to develop empirically-validated, data-driven criminal justice programs and policies.

The SCJC’s research on the implementation and impact of California’s Public Safety Realignment Legislation is supported by four grants totaling $650,000 from the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice; the James Irvine Foundation; and the Public Welfare Foundation.

The research presented to Governor Brown has been shared with the relevant state agencies.


“Realignment”—or AB 109— was passed in 2011 and transferred authority for convicted felons from the state prison and parole system to local counties and allocated $2 billion in the first two years for local programs. The statute offers counties an unprecedented amount of flexibility in most areas of community supervision, including sentencing and early release for low-level offenders, the use of alternative sanctions (electronic monitoring, substance abuse treatment, etc.), supervised probation, and delivery of social services. To date, more than 100,000 offenders have been “realigned” back to the counties as a result of AB 109.

Realignment was California’s direct response to a 2011 Supreme Court ruling inBrown v. Plata, which upheld a district court order requiring the state to reduce the prison population by approximately 30,000, to 137.5 percent of its capacity by 2013 (it has been as high as 200 percent of capacity) and improve medical and mental healthcare throughout the system.

While the overall population of incarcerated individuals in California may not change over time as offenders shift from state to local custody, the student researchers told the Governor Realignment can still be considered to have achieved its aims in both satisfying the court order and keeping offenders closer to their communities while investing in evidence-based treatment programs. In meeting these goals, California could simultaneously reallocate resources without compromising public safety.

Third-year student Jessica Spencer told the Governor and his team that, “Most counties feel like they are starting to ‘get their feet under them,’ and most report that the second year of Realignment is going much smoother than the first.”

The researchers found that Realignment has prompted counties to innovate in constructive ways, For instance, a number of sheriffs have taken the lead in developing rehabilitation and reentry programs.

“Every sheriff we interviewed firmly believed that they can treat offenders at home if given the proper resources,” explained second-year student Matthew Owens.

“Realignment has spurred counties to develop risk assessment tools, some for the first time, to manage their populations,” said Petersilia, “Some local jails had never managed their facilities and their inmate release decisions based on risk factors before. Now they are starting to.”

The student researchers demonstrated that in true “realignment,” the costs of incarceration should be “aligned” with the decision-making that leads to incarceration. Law enforcement, prosecution, and sentencing occur at the local level, and released prisoners eventually return home to their local communities. Realignment shifts back to counties the resources and responsibility for supervising their offenders. This has spurred agencies within counties to share resources and collaborate in ways they never did in the past. The cost shifting back to the counties created by Realignment also allows the state prison system to focus its resources on the most dangerous and long-term prisoners.

While Realignment allows counties to experiment in their own ways in handling the new jail and supervision populations, the student researchers have been collecting data on county differences. One example they reported is the use of new hybrid or “split” sentences which combine a jail term with a period of mandatory probation supervision. The researchers reported great variation among the counties in judges’ use of (and prosecutors’ recommendation of) such sentences and observed that the differences may lie in varying degrees of confidence these practitioners have in the quality of the supervision provided. For instance, in Riverside County judges have used split sentences in 60 percent of realigned cases whereas in Los Angeles County only 5 percent of sentences are split.

One repeated concern the student researchers heard from numerous practitioners across the state is the challenge counties face in effectively supervising a new type of offender. As explained by second-year student Mariam Hinds, “Counties are dealing with a more criminally sophisticated and hardened caseload due to the fact that some realigned offenses are more serious than pre-Realignment offenses that would have been sentenced locally and some inmates being released back to the counties from prison on post-release community supervision have serious or violent criminal histories.”


While Realignment has been the boldest criminal justice experiment in California, prisoners serving life sentences—who comprise 25 percent of the state prison population—represent a major challenge to the system. The parole grant rate has varied greatly under different gubernatorial administrations. The SCJC recognized that consideration of the parole release for this population should be part of a comprehensive evaluation of criminal justice in the state—especially in light of thePlata injunction.

The student research teams studying individuals serving life sentences with the possibility of parole worked on two distinct issues related to the parole process. In accordance with a research partnership Stanford has with the Governor’s office to study lifer parole, both student teams took on research that was requested by the Governor’s office and the Board of Parole Hearings for in-depth review. Law student Jackie Robinson, who did this research with fellow student David Friedman, presented an explanation of how the Board of Parole Hearings decides the length of time to defer the reconsideration of parole for prisoners found unsuitable for parole release.

Under Marsy’s Law (passed in 2008), lifers found unsuitable for parole have their subsequent hearing set at a period of 15 years from the present date unless the Board can find by “clear and convincing evidence” that the interests of the victim and public’s safety do not warrant such a lengthy period. If commissioners find sufficient evidence, they can set the denial length to 10, 7, 5, or 3 years. The students reviewed transcripts from 2011 and found that inmate characteristics like parole readiness, social and criminal history and institutional behavior largely explain who receives longer or shorter denials, but that other factors like gender, whether the inmate attends the hearing, and the identity of the particular commissioner also determine outcomes.

The students encouraged the State to establish clearer guidelines for the Board to use in making the parole denial length decision.

Second-year law student Michael Ruiz, whose study was done with Stanford undergraduate Eric Dunn, presented research examining one specific part of the parole process for those prisoners found suitable to be released on parole.  Specifically, this team studied how often the Board adds time to prisoners sentences by converting concurrent counts into consecutive ones as permitted under California regulations. The students closely analyzed 367 cases from 2011 and compared 30 variables to see if any patterns emerged in why some lifers received term enhancements from the Board of Parole Hearings that would keep them in prison longer and others did not. The team found enhancements were applied for 30 percent of lifers who had concurrent sentences (14 percent of all lifers total) and that none of the factors analyzed explained why some received enhancements and others did not. While the initial population that was being affected was small (only ten inmates), the researchers reported that “the number of ‘lifers’ affected by concurrent enhancements will increase as lifers are found suitable for parole earlier and as California does a more effective job in rehabilitating ‘lifers.’”

Additional Resources:

Professor Joan Petersilia is co-author, with Stanford Law student Jessica Snyder, of a recent study on Realignment: “Looking Past the Hype: 10 Questions Everyone Should Ask About California’s Prison Realignment” (forthcoming in California Journal of Politics and Policy, April 2013). Additionally, she has co-authored an article with Stanford Law student Jessica Spencer, “California Victims’ Rights in a Post-Realignment World,” forthcoming in Federal Sentencing Reporter, June 2013.

SCJC Briefing: Marsy’s Law and Lifer Parole Denial Periods

SCJC Briefing: Base Term Enhancements for Lifers Found Suitable for Parole

Stanford Criminal Justice Center Awarded Major Grants to Fund Its Research on the Effects of California’s Prison Realignment

Studying Prison Realignment in Realtime, Stanford Lawyer, October 28, 2011

Stanford Criminal Justice Center webpage on Realignment

Note: A few of the students have or will be presenting their research:

  • Jessica Spencer to the California Victim Compensation and Government Claims Office on March 4, 2013
  • Marisa Landin and Corinne Keel at the April 12, 2013, “Police, Prisons, and Power: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Criminal Justice” sponsored by The City University of New York’s Prison Studies Group (in New York City)